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Farkas v. Rich Coast Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 28, 2017

RICH COAST CORPORATION, et al., Defendants

          Jones Judge


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction and Background

         This litigation undeniably has a protracted and tortured procedural history, one which is entirely out of proportion with the actual dimensions of the dispute which initially divided the parties. In truth, while this case has sometimes been cast as a great and all-consuming controversy, this litigation actually springs forth from some small injuries. The dispute which led to this litigation began more than five years ago in April of 2012 when Abbey Farkas and Julie Ufema engaged in an exchange of e-mails. At that time Farkas and Ufema were each seeking modest mutual accommodations from one another in the wake of their joint involvement in an independent film project, the production of what even the defendant characterizes as a relatively insignificant independent film, a movie entitled “Caveat.” For her part, Ufema sought the return of a hard drive which contained raw footage of this film, a hard drive which Farkas had retained following her brief two month involvement as a film editor on this movie in the Autumn of 2011. Farkas, in turn, was seeking an additional $750 payment from Ufema, money that Farkas claimed she was owed for her work on this film. The discussion between Farkas and Ufema swiftly descended into mutual acrimony. That acrimony sowed the seeds of this lawsuit, litigation which has now encompassed half a decade, and spanned four separate state and federal courts. Over time the claims and counterclaims which the parties have leveled against one another have grown and multiplied and this case has transmogrified into some far different from the discrete dispute that divided the parties in April of 2012.

         For the past two years we have assiduously worked with counsel to clarify, identify, narrow and focus the issues in this litigation. We have also convened numerous conferences with counsel in an effort to allay various fears and concerns voiced by plaintiff's counsel. Finally, at the direction of the district court we have engaged in efforts to determine whether this dispute could be amicably resolved. Throughout the past two years plaintiff's counsel has repeatedly sought our assistance, and we have endeavored to be unstinting in providing time, energy and assistance to all parties in this lawsuit, in order to help them achieve “the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of [this] action and proceeding.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 1. At no time during these two years has plaintiff's counsel suggested in any way that our recusal was necessary. Quite the contrary, plaintiff's counsel has routinely enlisted our aid during this extended period to address a host of perceived grievances.

         Now that we have completed this task, though, plaintiff counsel's views have apparently suddenly, dramatically, and unjustifiably changed. This case, which is on the eve of scheduling for trial, comes before us for consideration of one final pretrial motion, a motion filed by the plaintiff and captioned as an omnibus motion to address alleged procedural and substantive issues. (Doc. 243.)[1] Embedded within this omnibus motion is a curious request, a motion that seeks our recusal at the very time that our involvement in this case was drawing to a close with the completion of the pre-trial management of this litigation.

         This recusal request is premised on a fact that Farkas acknowledges that she has known for some 18 months, since May of 2016. One of the defense counsel in this civil lawsuit, Mr. Snook, formerly served as the District Attorney of Mifflin County and was cross-designated as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney at a time when I served in the United States Attorney's office. In this capacity it appears that Mr. Snook participated in two cases undertaken by the United States Attorney's Office in 1999, some 18 years ago. See United States v. Caban, Cr. No. 1:CR-99-133; United States v. Aitkin, Cr. No. 1:CR-99-270. My own association with the United States Attorney's office ended eight years ago in 2009, when I assumed my current position. It is this tangential, temporally remote, and topically unrelated connection to Mr. Snook which Farkas now claims to be disqualifying as a matter of law.

         This oddly timed and meritless request calls to mind the observation ascribed to Albert Einstein that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the highest form of folly. Regrettably, recusal requests aimed at magistrate judges whose rulings displease Farkas has been a sad, but familiar, theme for Farkas in this litigation. Indeed, we note that the magistrate judge who oversaw this case in the Western District of Pennsylvania was subjected to a similar motion when she ruled against Farkas on some pre-trial motions in 2013 and 2014. Now, as our association with this case draws to a close, we too are compelled to address a recusal request by Farkas' counsel. Thus, every magistrate judge associated with this case has now been required to respond to recusal requests and baseless accusations of impropriety leveled by Farkas.

         There is a further irony to this particular motion which highlights the feckless, erratic and dilatory manner in which the plaintiff has proceeded in this litigation. Had Farkas taken no action in this case our involvement in this lawsuit would have already come to an end. Our involvement in this case would have ended because we had completed the pre-trial management of this litigation, addressed all of the potentially dispositive motions filed in this matter, and concluded the mediation efforts directed by the court. Since all that remained was trial scheduling, and the parties had not consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction, our work here was done. That is, our work was done until Farkas lodged her belated omnibus motion which, inter alia, requested our recusal. Accordingly, before we can voluntarily depart this litigation we must address these belated claims, including Farkas' recusal motion.

         Therefore, in the final irony caused by plaintiff's often paradoxical approach to this litigation, we are called upon to deny this request for recusal before we can now withdraw from this litigation in the ordinary course of our duties. Mindful that “a judge ‘has as strong a duty to sit when there is no legitimate reason to recuse as he does to recuse when the law and facts require'” Conklin v. Warrington Township, 476 F.Supp.2d 458, 463 (M.D. Pa. 2007), for the reasons set forth below we find that the grounds for recusal posited by Farkas' counsel are untimely, expedient, procedurally flawed, and illegitimate. Therefore, the request for recusal must be denied.

         II. Discussion

         A. Recusal Motion-Standard of Review

         The legal standards which govern such recusal requests were aptly summarized in Conklin v. Warrington Township, 476 F.Supp.2d 458 (M.D. Pa. 2007). In terms that are equally applicable here, the court explained that:

         The disqualification standard is set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 455, which provides in pertinent part as follows:

(a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
(b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstances:
(1) Where he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a ...

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